It is probably easier for companies to sell legal services and documents online than it is for firms of solicitors. This may seem unfair, given that the ultimate product (eg a divorce or a conveyance) was originally created by lawyers to protect the client. How can it be that non-lawyers can do it better?
In an article that I wrote for the March/April issue of this Newsletter, I described four reasons why I thought it was hard for a firm of solicitors to provide these products or services online. I said that:
- These products are technically difficult, requiring sophisticated (and expensive) software to do the job online, and considerable ongoing technical support.
- They are inherently risky for the firm in professional terms. Errors or misunderstandings could lead to serious legal problems for the firm – hardly good advertising for the firm.
- The relatively “simple” processes offered for online solution are not in any case very profitable, so a great deal of effort could lead to a relatively modest reward.
- A cheap online divorce or conveyance (say) is likely to undermine the solicitors “normal” work. A client could well say “Why should I pay a large amount of money for a personally managed divorce when you can provide the same service online for a third of the cost?
How do companies fare on these same issues? As far as the technical difficulty is concerned, they are just as likely – and indeed are probably more likely – to have the technical skills they need, and access to the technical people who can assist them. They can “buy in” the services of a lawyer to provide the legal content.
The reputational risk for a company is much less onerous than for a firm of solicitors in that they are not acting as legal professionals. They will have designed suitable disclaimers (probably created by a solicitor) to protect them against problems with their product and legal disasters for the user. They are free of supervision from a professional legal body; where “reserved activities” are required they will generally be bought it from a suitably qualified professional.
As far as profitability is concerned, the provision of these services would be a new product and would not undermine anything that the company was doing already. Even if the new services do not bring in large sums of money, this is a new source of income for the company and does not undermine any earlier product they provided. And they will be very aware that, if they can get the process right, there could be many ways that the service could expand in future.
There are about 50 companies that I know of that are supplying services and documents online – far too many to include in this article. However, I have provided descriptions of all these companies on my web page at www.venables.co.uk/selling2.htm and I have selected some of the more important ones as examples later in this article.
How they do it
The simplest method is to provide documents in Word with associated text descriptions (or “wizards”) to advise the client as to how to amend the documents. Usually the companies provide extensive free information about the legal topics involved, as part of the process of helping the user understand how to fill in or amend the documents. The user will print off, or generally take “ownership” of the document at the end of this process which need not have involved any personal input from the company at all.
However, it may be that there will be further involvement from the company to assist the user. In some cases, the documents produced by the user, or the sets of answers to a questionnaire, are then sent back to the company to be checked by legal staff and printed out or bound appropriately. There may well be an opportunity for one-to-one legal help from an expert (not necessarily a lawyer) at the company. Obviously, any human input of this sort will increase the cost of the service.
Sometimes, the company provides a large number of documents in many legal areas, such as Compactlaw.co.uk, Desktop Lawyer or ContractStore. In these cases, the company is essentially a publisher of documents and will generally not claim expertise in all these areas.
In other cases, the documents and processes are limited to one topic, such as writing a will, setting up a company, changing your name, obtaining a trademark or obtaining a divorce. The services offered in these cases are generally more complex and detailed and are more likely to involve some human assistance.
Some sites offer different levels of service, such as the very well established Divorce Online, one of the earliest divorce providers, where the user can obtain the documentation at several different levels – from a simple DIY through to a fully managed service involving support and advice. Wills can also be “simple” or “complex”, with associated different price levels.
Some of the most comprehensive document production services are provided with a technology called Rapidocs from Epoq, a pioneer in this field. Rapidocs essentially replicates online the face-to-face question and answer session a solicitor would have with a client. The document is created as the user answers the question and the user can see this happening on the screen. Epoq’s systems are now widely used by a range of sectors, including insurance, banking, trade associations and consumer interest groups to offer value-added online legal document services to their customers.
Another (much smaller) supplier of underlying document generation technology is a company called SEQ Legal, which has a variety of outlets including Docular and Website-Contracts.
As well as sites for producing documents, a number of services offered relate to processes and procedure, eg myhrtoolkitand and Landlord-Law. Generally, advice by email or telephone is provided as an additional option.
In some cases, experts registered with the company compete for the user’s business, eg Expert Answers. In these cases, the user names the price they are willing to pay and experts compete for the job of providing the answers. In a similar way, at Conveyancing Calculator, conveyancers registered with the company compete (with low quotes) for the business.
Some of the key companies
Here is a selection of the companies providing legal services online, based on my web page www.venables.co.uk/selling2.htm where direct links to all the sites will be found. Please note that there is much more detail on these, and other, companies, on my website.
Click Divorce provides free information about DIY divorce and also (for straight forward divorces) a package of information and forms for both DIY and managed services.
Clickdocs provides a wide variety of legal documents online, prepared by qualified solicitors and encoded to enable easy customisation. Documents are provided in Word with a “wizard” to help customise the documents offline.
Compactlaw.co.uk provides a wide variety of documents for businesses and consumers. There are some free documents as well and a large amount of free information on many legal topics.
Company Formations 24.7 specialises in providing company formation, administration and information services. Over 100,000 UK companies have been formed through this website.
Computalaw is a company of intellectual property lawyers that provides Computer, Internet and Ecommerce Contracts, forms, agreements and licenses on-line.
ContractStore has a wide range of contract templates for sale on its website. Designed for use both by start-up and established businesses, the catalogue contains commercial, construction, property, e-commerce and employment contracts and contracts drafted for cross-border and international use.
Conveyancing Calculator is an Online Conveyancing Fees Calculator that Solicitors can put onto their own website to provide potential clients with an instant conveyancing quote.
Deed Poll Service is a leading issuer of government accepted deed poll documents. They have helped thousands of people to legally change their name.
Desktop Lawyer is an online legal document service, which is available directly to the public. The service includes a wide range of customisable legal documents, contracts and letter templates for both personal and business use. The site uses document automation software created by Epoq (see above) called Rapidocs, which makes it easy to customise a document by answering a series of questions online. As the user answers the questions, the document is automatically tailored for his or her circumstances.
Divorce Online is a site providing uncontested online divorce services for divorcing couples. There are a series of packages available from a simple DIY divorce through to a fully managed one.
Docular is an online legal document editor for both lawyers and non-lawyers. It allows users to produce first draft legal document efficiently. The current range of 250+ documents includes IT contracts, website legal notices and general commercial contracts.
Expert Answers provides answers to legal questions, submitted online. The person who poses the question also sets the price they are willing to pay and make a ‘good faith’ payment to a PayPal account and is only debited from this account by Expert Answers when the user clicks “I accept the full answer”. There is a wide selection of experts on-hand (14 were available online when I tried the system).
Landlord-Law is a membership service for residential landlords and tenants from Tessa Shepperson. She provides “packaged” advice to landlords and also to tenants. For example, there are documents and forms which can be filled in online, and a number of interactive “trails” allowing users to find the answer to problems. Part of the site is free but access to documents and more detailed information requires a subscription payment.
Law Express provides telephone legal advice. They employ fully qualified solicitors to provide the advice, mostly working from the Bristol headquarters and the first contact is with someone in their sales team, who identifies the requirement and explains the options
LawDepot provides do-it-yourself legal forms for real estate, business, financial, estate and family legal documents.
Lawpack Publishing Ltd offers a wide range of self-help legal kits, forms, books and software. It is best known for its DIY Will Kit, but the full range also includes forms, letters and guidance on residential letting, probate, powers of attorney, employment law, divorce, property purchase and sale, health and safety and benefit rights.
Lawrite specialises in legal and HR support for UK employers. They also provide outsourced HR and management consultancy services for a variety of British and international businesses. Their templates include employment contracts, policies and procedures and sample letters to employees.
London Registrars offer fixed price business policies documents and contracts. As well as company incorporation and company secretarial work, they cover data protection, employment contracts, sales of good from a website and trade mark protection.
myhrtoolkit is a company owned by solicitors Ironmonger Curtis in Sheffield, providing an online service for a company to manage its employees. The service provides a low cost solution to streamline HR admin for small and medium-sized businesses between 5 and 500 staff. Users are granted access based on their role in the organisation – owner, manager, or employee – and each user has access to view and control information appropriate to their level. Users can self-manage staff holidays, contracts of employment, induction, appraisal, sickness and other absence.
Redstone Wills is apparently the largest will writing organisation in the UK. They offer a wide variety of Will writing services, from making a will or living will, to lasting and general power of attorney.
Simply-docs.co.uk provides in excess of 3,000 document templates drafted by solicitors, or HR and health and safety professionals. This subscription service provides for unlimited template downloads, and free updates and additions
Website Contracts provide downloadable template legal documents relating to websites and the internet with many types of contract available
Which? Legal Service offers unlimited professional consumer and employment legal advice by phone and email from qualified lawyers for a monthly membership payment. Their team of lawyers will let the user know if they have a case and how to pursue it, in a step-by-step process. There is also a will writing service, with different levels of service available.
Image cc by Sarah Joy on Flickr.